The Singaporean artist and writer talks about his hopes and dreams for local literature and his role as Creative Director of Textures 2023.

“I was a bookworm from the time I was young. Books were a way for me to disappear into another world when things around me were difficult, challenging or weren’t that interesting and appealing as a kid.

I lived near a library so books were always within reach. My mum used the library as a free tuition and childcare centre [laughs], so she was more than happy to leave me there for an hour or two as I read and discovered new worlds. I have never lost the love for books since.

I’ve always wanted to be a writer. All the way up to college, I was surrounded by very prolific peers who had already published a certain number of books by a certain age. I too wanted to write a book, but at the time, I realised that I didn’t have a book in me. [laughs]

Art, however, was my second voice. I discovered that I could float more comfortably and easily in poetry and photography. At a time when you couldn’t use mobile phones to take pictures, I would carry a compact camera with me everywhere I went.

Photography allowed me to literally introduce a point of view and demonstrate a way of seeing. You’re framing the world and showing only what you want to. You exclude everything else, and I think that’s similar to poetry where you leave out as many words as possible.

As I talk to other writers, poets and artists, I realised that the biggest difference between us is my need to move from room to room in my head. When the photo part of me needs to rest and recharge, I’ll step into the next room to explore another area of my mind and artistry.

So nowadays, as a multi-disciplinary artist, I often move across media. When I produce an exhibition that features photography, I’ll often incorporate other elements like a drawing, sculpture or textile. It’s something I try to do now as the Artistic Director of Textures.

Textures is a festival that was developed to encourage the reading of SingLit. It was originally meant to be a weekend programme. But three years ago, while working with a producer from The Arts House called Lisa, we transformed it into a month-long festival.

Image credit: Joseph Nair, Memphis West Pictures.

The first edition of Textures happened during the first year of the pandemic, so we called it The Bottled City because we all felt bottled up and stuck. I was curious about the kinds of stories that exist in this stagnant space and things we could explore while we were in limbo.

Then last year’s instalment of Textures was called The Great Escape because the world was slowly opening up and some of us could finally travel again. But I was interested in exploring books as a real and valid form of escapism through the programmes I curated.

This year, for things to come full circle – especially after feeling bottled up and escaping – I thought, let’s come home. It’s a great fit thematically because after these past two years that we’ve had, what if the home you arrived at is different now from where you started?

For some of us, the workplace became our home. For others, having to be close to our family for such an extended period changed the way we saw home. And as Lisa and I had always planned Textures to be a trilogy, this is the end game. [laughs]

When I was thinking about curating programmes for Textures 2023, I always start with books and works that I like and want to see receive more attention. For example, I’ve always been a fan of Yeow Kai Chai’s poems. He won the Singapore Literature Prize last year.

We’ve also commissioned a new set of dramatised readings, A Novel Idea: SingLit Edition, that focus on some great new books by female authors, including Kirstin Chen’s Counterfeit. It’s a fun, satirical romantic novel that’s actually about to become a Netflix series.

What I really like doing, especially through Textures, is to develop the relationship between parent and child through reading. Nighttime reading is something I personally enjoyed and miss doing with my son, although we don’t do it anymore because he’s already grown up.

Reading is a great way of bringing two people together, but some parents don’t really know how to do it. They want tips. So it’s been satisfying getting to do these reading workshops and have facilitators guide parents on how to do voices and express with their hands. 

I’m also very passionate about taking SingLit to the audience – and I mean going as far from the city centre as we can go – because not everyone has the time and the energy to make their way to The Arts House and participate in our festival.

In the past two editions of Textures, we made a point of going to places like Woodlands, Yishun and Seng Kang. And I’m aware that heartland programming, especially where community arts is concerned, typically means less sophistication, sanitised or reductive.

But I genuinely believe that those audiences won’t respond poorly to sophisticated and mature conversations and ideas. Folks respond when you respect what they are capable of. Sometimes, they just want to be encouraged and know that someone has taken the time to welcome them and make things available to them.” – Jason Wee

Interview by: Arman Shah